I am continually amazed by the number of professionals who straddle the line between Western and Science Fiction. David Weddle is one such professional, currently working on Battlestar Galactica, he started out by writing a biography of the Western director Sam Peckinpah. — ed. N.E. Lilly
David Weddle is a Nebula Award”‘nominated screen”‘writer who has worked on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Battlestar Galactica. He is also well-known for his biography of director Sam Peckinpah.
What inspired you to write the Sam Peckinpah biography entitled If They Move… Kill ’Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah?
I grew up watching westerns with my father. When I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, on weekends my family would go downtown to movies. My sister and mother would peel off to see a Julie Andrews movie — Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie — while Dad and I would to off to see a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood picture. The War Wagon, Hang ’Em High, True Grit, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Big Jake… I was thoroughly steeped in the archetypes, conventions and set pieces of the Western genre, which have deep roots reaching all the way back to Shakespeare, Homer and the first campfire tales told by cave dwelling human beings before the dawn of civilization.
By the time I was 13 we were living in California and my father took me to see Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece, The Wild Bunch. It was a transformative, coming-of-age experience because Peckinpah was also thoroughly versed in the mythology of the Western and knew how to subvert and smash its conventions and then reclaim them. I remember being shocked at the moment where Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) sells out a member of his gang, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), when the evil Mexican warlord, Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), accuses him of stealing a case of rifles to aid his impoverished villagers. Dutch looks right at Angel and then says to Mapache, “He’s a thief, you deal with him.” Then he rides out of the warlord’s stronghold to save his skin. My dad whispered under his breath, “Angel saved his life.” That kind of thing never happened in a John Wayne Western. The star never turns his back on a man who saved his life in a craven attempt to preserve his own.
Yet Peckinpah reclaims the romanticism of the genre by the end of the movie when the Wild Bunch cannot live with their cowardice and their failure to live up to their own code — “when you side with a man, you stick with him!” Finally, they must go back for Angel and die for him and the idealistic villagers he gave his life for, and the values they represent. For the first time, this band of killers — who are shown to be thoroughly Nihilistic in the beginning of the movie — lay down their lives for someone other than themselves, for a cause beyond greed and self preservation. As a World War II Marine, my father understood that ending, and as his son I was moved to tears by the climax. The Bunch’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for Angel’s village was all the more heroic because at first they were afraid and gave into cowardice. The Wild Bunch so thoroughly influenced my life that I eventually wrote a biography of Peckinpah: If They Move Kill ’Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah.
How did you get involved with the Science Fiction genre?
Like any American boy, I have read Science Fiction. My favorite authors are Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Pierre Boulle. But I am not as steeped in the literature as the vast majority of SciFi writers. The reason I think I have thrived in the genre is that it is so similar to the Western. You have people crossing vast distances, far removed from the institutions of civilization, often thrust into primal moral dilemmas in which they cannot call on a higher authority for guidance. They must make existential choices to decide who they are, what they stand for, what their values are.
What do you think the attraction is to Space Westerns?
As the frontier experience has receded from our living memory — we have moved from being primarily an agrarian society before World War II to an urban society that has gobbled up most of the open land we used to interact with on an everyday basis — the Western has receded as a genre. It no longer occupies the center ring of American popular culture. But the conventions and archetypes and narrative structures it established are alive and well in Science Fiction. It’s no accident that Roddenberry called space The Final Frontier.
How did your writing of the Sam Peckinpah biography lead to a position as a writer for Star Trek: Deep Space 9?
Ira Behr, who was the show runner and Executive Producer of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was a huge Peckinpah fan. He loved my book and invited me to lunch at Paramount and took me for a tour of the DS9 sets. Being a shameless opportunist, I asked if I could pitch story ideas to him. He said yes and sent me a three-foot stack of scripts and story material. I had never watched DS9, so I called my friend, Bradley Thompson, who was a huge Science Fiction buff and Star Trek fan and asked if he wanted to try and sell a story to the show with me. The first time I sat down and watched a DS9 episode, I had no idea what was going on because it was such a dense alternate universe. But Brad and I studied the show for months. Eventually we sold a story to Ira. He let us come in while the staff outlined the script and participate in the process. Ron Moore wrote the teleplay for that episode, “Rules of Engagement.” We sent a note to him afterwards telling him how much we admired his teleplay and he sent us all of the production revisions, so we could study them.
We sold two more teleplays to DS9 and eventually they put us on staff.
How do you reconcile having written an excellent biography about a Western genre icon with the fact that you also write screenplays for popular Science Fiction television series? Are there two David Weddles?
It is an ongoing joke in the writer’s room at Battlestar that I will inevitably draw upon a Western as an analogy for a story we are telling. It could be The Wild Bunch, Major Dundee, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or Hombre. This is because Westerns are often stripped down narratives and it is easy to identify the character arcs, the structure, and the essential story being told.
What are some of the Peckinpah references that have worked their way into Battlestar Galactica?
There are many references to Westerns in my episodes of Battlestar Galactica. In fact. there is usually a line from a Peckinpah Western in every episode that Bradley Thompson and I write. I use Peckinpah as my touchstone for almost everything I write.
Can you give me a peek at some of the highlights in the upcoming season 4 of Battlestar Galactica?
Are the Four Cylons revealed at the end of Season Three — Tigh, Tyrol, Anders and Tory — the same as other skinjobs we’ve met? That’s a good question, and those four characters will seek to answer it and many other mysteries about their nature, purpose and destiny in Season Four. Many of their theories will be confounded, many stunning and mind bending revelations will come to pass. All of them will go through profound and harrowing changes.
Ron Moore had some very strong ideas about Starbuck and the ultimate role she would play in the broad canvas of the series, and that figured very strongly in the writing of “Maelstrom.” But the specifics of Starbuck’s journey and how it would play out in Season Four were not nailed down until we had our writer’s retreat in Lake Tahoe to map out Season Four. And there are still many details that have not been fleshed out. The truth is, nothing’s nailed down until the final episode is written, shot and edited. Everything is always in flux and anything could still happen. That’s what makes it such an exciting show to write and to watch.
“Maelstrom” is permeated with clues that will have unexpected payoffs in future episodes — as are all of the other episodes. Sometimes even the writers don’t know which details will turn out to be critical clues because of the organic way in which the show is written. This is because we build on what we’ve already written, rather than map out every little detail ahead of time.
The mandala that Kara painted since she was a child and that later showed up in the clouds to lure her to her death was something Brad and I went back and discovered when we were writing “Rapture.” Ron wanted her to see something on the Temple of Five on the algae planet that would relate to a larger destiny, something that no one else would recognize. We went back and screened the scenes from “Valley of Darkness” and noticed the mandala that she had painted on her apartment wall. That gave us the idea to put it on the Temple and to build it into her backstory in “Maelstrom.” None of that was planned out ahead of time. So we will be going back to “Maelstrom” and other episodes ourselves, looking for clues that will tell us what happens to Kara next.
Other works by N.E. Lilly
- Interview with Phil Foglio (Nov 8, 2009)
- 10 Most Influential Space Westerns (Oct 25, 2009)
- Space Western Most Wanted (Jan 25, 2009)
- Interview with John G. Cawelti (Dec 7, 2008)
- Interview with Beth Nelson, 2008 Browncoat Ball Chair (Sep 21, 2008)
- more by N.E. Lilly
- 10 Most Influential Space Westerns by N.E. Lilly (Oct 25, 2009)
- Space Western Most Wanted by N.E. Lilly (Jan 25, 2009)
- Battlestar Galactica Role-Playing Game Review by Kenneth J. Newquist (Jul 27, 2008)
- Interview with “Mojo” by N.E. Lilly (Jul 13, 2008)
- Interview with Seamus Kevin Fahey by N.E. Lilly (May 18, 2008)
- The Battlestar Galactica Code: The Last Cylon by N.E. Lilly (Apr 22, 2008)
- Behind the Scenes of Star Trek: Of Gods and Men by N.E. Lilly (Jan 20, 2008)
- Space Western Holiday Specials by N.E. Lilly (Dec 16, 2007)
- Interview with Jane Espenson by N.E. Lilly (Dec 9, 2007)